Merkel's Revolution: Germany's Conservatives Head for the Political Center

By , Markus Feldenkirchen, René Pfister and Christian Reiermann

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has initiated dramatic changes within her Christian Democratic Party. The old guard has lost influence and the CDU is heading to the left. But Merkel risks alienating the party base.

Angela Merkel has mastered the art of the clever invitation. She has invited the leadership of her Christian Democrats to a closed-door meeting in Berlin on Thursday. The agenda, according to CDU General Secretary Hermann Gröhe, will include a blunt analysis of the results of Germany's general elections held last September.

Pollster Matthias Jung, one of the top speakers at the meeting, will appear at the special request of the CDU leadership to talk about the party's profile. There will be a lot to explain.

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Photo Gallery: Merkel's Quiet Revolution
In last fall's election, the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), captured only 33.8 percent of the vote nationwide. It was the worst election result for the CDU/CSU since 1949, and it was only the success of the Free Democrats that kept Merkel and her party in power -- in a new coalition with the FDP.

But several members of the party leadership have their own agendas for the Berlin meeting. They see the gathering as an opportunity to finally voice their criticism of Merkel's policies, which they blame for the poor election outcome. Unfortunately for them, however, Jung, armed with his figures, will be sitting across the table. The director of the Forschungsgruppe Wahlen polling institute is a demographer Chancellor Merkel can depend upon.

Drop in Support among Catholics

Jung has prepared numerous charts and diagrams that reinterpret last fall's setback as a success. He will not deny that the CDU/CSU has lost many of its traditional voters, a decline that includes, for example, a 4 percent drop in support among Catholic churchgoers.

But Jung will also have numbers that back Merkel's effort to shift the CDU to the left. For one, there were the party's gains among younger women in the last election. And then there were the blue-collar workers, who are now voting for the CDU/CSU in larger numbers than for the competing Social Democratic Party (SPD). When asked whether an election result of 40 percent or more is realistic these days, Jung says: "That sort of result is no longer feasible in a five-party system."

The pollster's presentation will be Merkel's declaration of war against party conservatives. The chancellor is determined not to allow disgruntled operatives from getting in the way of her plans to rebuild the party. The conservatives, in particular, consoled themselves for the poor election showing with the hope that a coalition with the FDP would usher in a new era in which there would be no room for a flaccid CDU.

Nothing could be further from Merkel's intentions. One of her primary goals for the meeting at CDU headquarters in Berlin will be to carry on her modernization drive which began during her first term. Now, Merkel intends to complete her work -- a cultural revolution driven by the CDU.

A Big Risk

When it comes to personnel, the course has already been set. With the appointment of Herman Gröhe as general secretary of the party, Merkel has selected a man who would find a coalition with the Green Party more exciting than the traditional alliance with the FDP. Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen has aspirations of becoming a German Al Gore. And the new interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, has announced that he, unlike his predecessors, does not intend to constantly inflict new security laws on the country.

Merkel is taking a big risk with this strategy. Josef Schlarmann, the head of the CDU's small business association, says that he no longer recognizes the party "that ran the government in Bonn" a reference to the last CDU chancellor, Helmut Kohl, and the others from his party who preceded him. Although change is necessary, he adds, the scope of the shift Merkel is pushing will jeopardize the party at its core. "If we lose contact with the base, things will become perilous for the CDU." Christian Baldauf, head of the CDU in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, agrees: "We must think about how to reconnect with our base. It is critical that these voters feel at home with us."

Schlarmann and Baldauf can't even take comfort from the fact that Merkel -- who spent her first term in a coalition with the center-left Social Democrats -- now heads a government with its preferred coalition partner. The CDU/FDP coalition government is making such a chaotic impression that CDU/CSU leaders like Bavarian Governor Horst Seehofer and Jürgen Rüttgers, the governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, are calling for a new beginning. Merkel must "set the position and course more decisively," says Hans-Peter Friedrich, the head of the CSU's national committee.

An Open Flank

But Merkel is so convinced about the correctness of her course that she is even willing to risk quarreling with her new coalition partners. The large-scale tax cuts the Liberals are demanding, for example, will almost certainly never become reality, at least not as the FDP envisions, because the chancellor wants to avoid being accused of favoring higher income voters. Experience has taught her that tax cuts provide her political opponents an open flank for attack. At the Berlin meeting, the CDU intends to adopt a resolution under which the duration and scope of tax cuts would depend on economic developments. It is an approach which quietly steers the party away from its coalition agreement with the FDP -- a plan which called for significant tax cuts in 2011.

Rarely has a party in Germany undergone such a radical shift as the CDU has under Merkel. For 50 years, the CDU was the country's large, conservative, big-tent party. It seemed as stuffy and outmoded as former Chancellor Helmut Kohl's cardigans, but that was part of the zeitgeist. The CDU was united in the conviction that all things evil came from the left.

Now the party itself is expected to shift to the left -- and to like it. Hamburg Mayor Ole von Beust admitted last week that he has "moved further to the left and become more environmental." The party is to become more liberal, more female and more eastern German -- a reflection of Merkel's own background. It's no wonder the party has lost voters. The CDU/CSU lost 1.1 million voters to the FDP in the last parliamentary election, while roughly the same number of its voters stayed home on election day. The CDU's shift to the left is a risky operation. Although Merkel could capture new voters from the political center, she is also alienating traditional voters on the right.

And she's not shy about her shifting priorities. She is passionate when it comes to talking about electric cars. But when fellow CDU member Erika Steinbach, the head of the Federation of Expellees (eds. note: a group representing the interests of those Germans expelled from Eastern Europe following World War II, traditionally a powerful interest group within the CDU), faces criticism from half the country, the chancellor is silent. Merkel has turned the conservative world upside-down.

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